Quarantine quandary for grandparents and older adults: Wanting to help, but stuck social distancing

Ideas to help keep families mentally and physically healthy

By Leah Persky • Family Life Education Manager

The other day I was trying to help my daughter make some progress on her Rubik’s Cube and we were stuck. We felt like we tried it all, and then we got a little corner of greens nicely lined up; a little bit of success! It made me think of social distancing and how hard it is and then sometimes you find a little something that really helps. It is a new challenge for all of us. Each day we have to figure out how we can meet our social, professional, and physical needs during these strange times; there are no quick fixes or easy answers. We just have to keep trying new things and keep at it until we find something that works!

Leah Persky

For most of us, our lives look very different than they did a short six weeks ago. Sheltering in place is affecting all of us in different ways. Parents are experiencing an almost impossible time squeeze with almost no alone time, while many “empty nesters,” older adults and single people living alone are experiencing isolation and loneliness.

Grandparents and older adults who care for children close to them are really feeling this situation acutely. Many want to help their children and grandchildren out. They are aware of how taxing working and school from home can be, but what exactly can they do to help? Many are missing their loved ones and grandchildren deeply; many worry about their own health and about how they can sustain strong physical and mental health going forward, possibly for months to come. These are just a few of the new concerns we are all dealing with and there are no easy solutions. For people 65 and older, the risk of getting sick from Covid-19 is a real concern and that must inform all of our actions.

Given the uniquely challenging nature of this situation and shedding a light on stresses experienced by many empty nesters, grandparents and older adults, here are a few ideas to keep us all mentally and physically healthy.

It may be called social distancing, but let’s call it physical distancing. This has helped me better meet the needs of myself, my family and the families I work with. We all still need connection and crave support from each other, but now must get a little creative on how we meet our social needs. For a great resource on ways to connect virtually with children and family members (even for those of us burned out from Zoom meetings), check out this list, or this one.

Two of our new favorite apps my school-aged children share with their grandparents is caribu.com  (a great way to read together) and Marco Polo to send video messages.

Clear and direct communication with close family members is essential – prepare to have short productive and possibly challenging conversations. I have become aware that many families are struggling to figure out where the boundaries should be in terms of seeing each other. Many avoid this conversation and it often leads to heartache and confusion.

Should grandma and grandpa still watch my young children? Should we get together for holidays? Can we meet outside for a distance hangout with my young grandchildren?  Variations on these questions are common, especially as many parents have to figure out child care for their kids while they are working. On top of that, we all really miss seeing our loved ones.

Problems tend to arise when there is a mismatch between what each party is feeling comfortable with right now and they don’t discuss it. Each family should have a conversation about what each group within the family is comfortable with. We must respect the views and needs of others, even if these don’t match our own views. Keeping everyone as healthy as possible is the most fundamental goal right now, and it is best to err on the side of caution.

The experts generally agree that adults over 65 should not be spending time with their children or grandchildren if they live in different homes. Of course, unique circumstances do not make this distancing possible at all this time. Here are some useful resources to explore as you begin or re-visit these conversations: 

From Harvard Medical School, Grandparenting in the Time of Covid-19

From the New York Times: Should the Grandparents Still Visit by Hallie Levine

Parents are feeling so overwhelmed. What do parents most need right now? Ask them. So many grandparents and older family members have time and want to help their younger family members out. Start a process where you each ask each other what you need. We might think we know, but often we do not. This is a wonderful weekly practice to get into; no matter if you live near or far away from your loved ones. 

Maybe an adult child drops off groceries or medications at their parents’ home; maybe the parent then cooks a meal that can be picked up the following day. There are so many ways we can help each other and share the work, even if we are physically apart. Talk about it and see what creative plans you can come up with.

Virtual Volunteering. If you are looking for additional ways to give back to your community during the pandemic, there are many ways to make a positive impact. Here are 9 Places to Volunteer Online and Make a Real Difference. There is also the tried and true idea of pen pals – a great way to connect with people feeling isolated now.

To connect with opportunities at JFCS, please reach out to Dana Shapiro, Community and Volunteer Engagement Coordinator & Intake Counselor, at 952-417-2112 or dshapiro@jfcsmpls.org.

Reach out for help when you need it. Our counselors are expertly trained and can provide remote therapy, including teletherapy, for people of all backgrounds and ages. We accept most insurance, including Medicare. Just call JFCS at 952-546-0616.

I hope these few ideas will provide some support and guidance to you and your family as we all figure out how to meet out social, physical and intellectual needs while sheltering in place. Stay well, take care and let’s support each other with love and understanding. 

For more information, contact Leah Persky at lpersky@jfcsmpls.org, or call the JFCS Parent Help Line at 952-546-0616.